There is no place on the USC campus that illustrates the current state of the football team better than the Pertusati University Bookstore. Normally around this time of year the windows of the four-story, brick-laced building are filled with Rose Bowl stickers and football decals. This year they are decorated in pink and white polka dots with a Happy Holidays sign below four televisions showing USC students impersonating a bad Old Navy commercial.
Step inside and there are three flat screens blaring the USC-Penn State Rose Bowl from the good old days, er, January, and discounted Rose Bowl championship hats. And if you look hard enough you'll see a small rack in the corner with Emerald Bowl T-shirts and sweatshirts to commemorate the Trojans' Dec. 26 game against Boston College at AT&T Park.
"How are these selling?" I asked one of the bookstore employees.
"They're not," he responded before going to fix a rack that contains four different kinds of shirts celebrating USC's 34-27 win over a 6-6 Notre Dame team this year.
How did the Trojans get here? How did they go from seven straight Pac-10 titles, BCS bowl appearances, 11-win seasons and top-four finishes in the AP poll, to an 8-4 season with two home losses, including a 55-21 blowout at the hands of Stanford, and a day-after-Christmas bowl game named after dry roasted almonds and played in a baseball stadium?
Begin with these five things:
1. Player turnover
Pete Carroll has always felt that no single coach or player is irreplaceable. His program, after all, survived the loss of Carson Palmer, Norm Chow, Matt Leinart or Reggie Bush without missing a beat. But Carroll has never had to replace as much talent as he did this season. Eleven Trojans were taken in the first six rounds of the NFL draft, including eight on defense, and quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was expected to lead the team and pass the torch to either Aaron Corp or freshman Matt Barkley, declared for the NFL draft. When Carroll uncharacteristically criticized Sanchez's decision in public, it was a sign: He knew his offense was in trouble from the jump.
2. Coaching turnover
When offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt went to Washington, Carroll did what he has done since winning his first national championship -- promote from within and hire from the NFL. He brought on Jeremy Bates, who was the quarterbacks coach with the Denver Broncos, and promoted Trojans secondary coach Rocky Seto as the new coordinators. But the foundation of the USC program was built on the experience of coaches like Norm Chow and Ed Orgeron (Carroll's first national championship team had only one coach with NFL experience) who had been coaching and developing college football players for 20 years, and weren't looking for a job in between NFL gigs. This year's coaching staff had seven assistants who came from the NFL and are likely candidates to return to Sunday football.
3. Serious injury
Before the season even began, the Trojans sidelined freshman linebacker Frankie Telfort, one of the top linebacker prospects in the country, after it was discovered he had a genetic heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Two months later, senior tailback Stafon Johnson, the team's second-leading rusher, missed the final nine games of the season after a weightlifting accident crushed his larynx. Soon after, junior linebacker Jarvis Jones was shelved with a spinal-column injury.
4. Lack of depth
USC teams have been known for their depth and top-notch recruiting the past seven seasons. This year, they looked thin. "Look back to when USC was winning national championships," said former All-American Trojans wide receiver Mike Williams. "If Matt Leinart was having a problem with a read or something he could come to the sideline and talk to Matt Cassell and Brandon Hance, a couple of guys who had been there just as long and seen just as much as him and talk about it. Who does Matt Barkley have to talk to from a player's perspective? It's just a very young team."
The same is true on defense. When Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews Jr. left for the NFL, the core of the Trojans' D was made up of unproven freshmen and sophomores. Overall, only two seniors served as primary backups on a team forced to shuffle lineups and play guys out of position, consistently limiting their schematic options.
5. A much stronger Pac-10 conference
When USC's dominant run began in 2002, only one other Pac-10 team (Washington State) was ranked in the AP Top 25. This season, four Pac-10 teams are ranked and seven are playing in bowl games. USC won 27 straight Pac-10 games from 2002 to 2006, including 13 consecutive conference road games. Since 2006, all nine of USC's losses have come against Pac-10 teams, including four this season. Each Pac-10 team has hired, recruited and practiced with the goal of knocking off USC; about half of them succeeded this season.
"Everybody in the conference this year seems to have a strong running back and quarterback," Carroll said. "There's been a lot of big numbers put up in a variety of styles, from Oregon's wide-open stuff to Stanford trying to hammer the football off tackle and everything in between. It's a very diversified, well-coached conference this year."
So how can USC turn it around? Glad you asked:
1. Rely on experience
The Trojans already took their first steps toward a better 2010 by simply enduring the growing pains of 2009. Matt Barkley will not be a freshman quarterback next season. Chris Galippo will not be a sophomore linebacker starting for the first time. And Bates will no doubt be more comfortable airing out the offense. As inexperienced and raw as this team was, the players grew from being thrown into the fire.
"The inexperience of our team was a big factor," Carroll said. "We got young real fast on defense. And in situations where you got to come through, finish, be tough and make the adjustments and wrap up games, we were not effective. I also need to do a better job and coach better so they're in better position. But in the end we just didn't have the wherewithal it takes to finish like we've had for years."
2. Recruit like the old days
Landing a top-five class doesn't mean you've recruited five-star talent. USC's 2006 recruiting class was ranked No. 1 by most outlets but when you look at the list of would-be seniors now, 10 are no longer with the team and several others didn't develop as expected. USC needs to get back to recruiting players who fit into Carroll's system rather than chasing the mythical national recruiting championship and sometimes courting highly touted kids with fragile egos.
The players who set the Trojans' run in motion were hungry and looking to prove they belonged. Matt Leinart, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Mike Williams, Winston Justice and Darnell Bing didn't come to USC thinking they were entitled to play in the BCS every year, they wanted to be a part of the group that turned the program around.
"A big thing we had when I was there were strong senior leaders," Williams said. "Guys who had weathered the storm and appreciated success and winning because they had never won before. Over the course of time the senior leadership has been absent because you get recruits who just come in because of the name and dynasty and it doesn't mean the same to them. They just want to come in for a couple years and go to the NFL."
3. Showcase playmakers
The Trojans were once a fixture on Saturday night highlight shows. But now USC fans have to think long and hard to remember the last offensive play that brought them out of their seats. That's illustrated by the fact the team is not in the top half of the Pac-10 in passing offense, scoring offense or total offense.
Next season's team goes a long way by getting the ball to players such as Damian Williams and Joe McKnight (assuming both return next season) in space, hitting them on quick slants, seam routes and bubble screens.
4. Attack the softer schedule
Six of USC's first nine games this season were on the road, and the Trojans didn't play at the Coliseum in consecutive weeks until the end of the season. They played back-to-back road games three times and played four road games (against Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State) in a span of six weeks.
In 2010, instead of playing Ohio State and Notre Dame on the road, USC will be going to Hawaii and Minnesota, and will play back-to-back road games only once.
5. Rediscover the swagger
There is a difference between swagger and overconfidence and this season's Trojans veered toward the latter, while never really embracing the former when times were tough. In seasons past a blowout loss at Oregon would have been a turning point, a chance to refocus their efforts and win out. This season's squad went on to lose two more games, both at home. The 2010 squad can't assume the Trojan mystique will be there, they need to embrace the chance to reestablish it. As jarring as this season may be, let's not forget Florida had an 8-4 season in between their two recent national championships.
"People have to fear us again," said senior center Jeff Byers, one of the last links to USC's national championship in 2004. "We got to get back to dominating in the running game and dominating on defense. We got to hit guys and get guys scared of us. This team has to get back to being nasty. We can do it; it's just a matter of if this team wants it or not."